OMAHA — His options dwindling, his path to the 2016 Olympics blocked, his body no longer able to summon what his mind was envisioning on the starting blocks, Matt Grevers now needed an appropriate exit strategy. How do you say goodbye to a sport that had demanded so much of you for so many years, yet also had given you so much in return?
He could have bowed out Tuesday night after the final of the 100-meter backstroke, his baby, his bread-and-butter, when he lost out on an Olympic spot by half a second. He also could have strung himself along for the duration of these U.S. Olympic trials — having qualified for the 50 freestyle on the last day — in hopes of wringing out every ounce of high-level competition he possibly could.
Instead, Grevers, a 31-year-old six-time Olympic medalist, walked away from swimming in a fitting way — at the end of a morning swim, a preliminary heat of the 200 back, one more (mostly) invisible grind in a lifetime of them. There was no live television broadcast to air it. Only a handful of people in the stands could have known what they were witnessing — the final competitive swim of a great Olympian, a four-time gold medalist and one of the most popular and likeable swimmers of his era.
“This was for myself today — just to enjoy it all,” Grevers said. “I didn’t expect make the team in the 200 back at all. I was just having fun this morning, soaking up the crowd in the little warm up. I wanted to do the 200 back, just to see it again. And be able to wave to the crowd.”
And then, two minutes and three-hundredths of a second later — his time posted from Lane 5, Heat 11 of Thursday morning’s preliminaries — it was all over.
Grevers hauled himself out of the pool and, still dripping from head to toe, tried to explain something only others in his position could possibly understand — the feeling of leaving behind something that has consumed you and, in many ways, defined for as long as you can remember.
“I really love this sport, and it doesn’t always go like you want. Every swimmer can say that at some point,” he said. “That’s what makes the good moments so much better — the fights and battles you have. I’m happy to have been here. I don’t feel like I’ve let too many people down. Hopefully I didn’t. . . .
“There’s always that battle: When do you step away — on top, on the bottom? Where would I feel satisfied? And I feel very satisfied. I didn’t bomb or anything [in the 100 back]. I got third. It’s a tough spot, but it’s not a bad spot to maybe step away little bit.”
As it turned out, Grevers’s time Thursday in the 200 back prelims was good enough for 14th place and a spot in Thursday night’s semifinals. But knowing he wasn’t fast enough to go any further than that, he said he planned to withdraw in time for the 17th-place finisher to take his spot. Maybe there was a kid, sort of like Grevers himself was 12 years ago, who could use that spot as a springboard to future greatness.
So, say hello Thursday night to Tristan Sanders, a 20-year-old out of the University of Michigan, who suddenly went from 17th to 16th, sneaking into the semis thanks to Grevers’ gesture.
“I wanted to see what I have, and I don’t have it in the 200 back,” Grevers said. “It’s been an experiment all season along, swimming the 200 to help my endurance in the 100.”
Walking away Thursday was emotional, but it wasn’t difficult. The tough day was Tuesday, when Grevers stood on the blocks believing he had one more Olympics left in him, then finishing 48/100ths of a second out of second place.
“I feel like the future of backstroke’s in great hands. And there’s no room for me,” he said. “It’s an incredible roller coaster. I’ve had a very blessed and fortunate life, without many downs. [But] that might have been the lowest I’ve felt.”
That night, at the end of the session, Grevers stuck around CenturyLink Center and signed autographs for more than hour, and was blown away by how many fans offered some sort of personal sentiment — a congratulations on his great career, a condolence on missing out in the 100 back, or a thank you for what he had done for the sport.
“Feeling the love from these fans. . . . I actually feel more loved than ever, and I’m really high again,” he said. “It was awesome. They were all so thankful and happy. I don’t know if people feel that much love in one night. And I didn’t even do well. That was pretty awesome [to] get that sort of feeling even after you think you’re disappointing people.”
Part of him wants to give it another go-round, to keep training, keep grinding, maybe make a run at 2020 in Tokyo as a 35-year-old. But it would be both a longshot and an irresponsible thing to do, now that he is married, and now that he and the former Annie Chandler, herself a one-time national team swimmer, are expecting their first child, a daughter, in November.
“The sport of swimming is unforgiving,” he said. “And there’s not too many ways to make a livelihood out of swimming unless you’re on the Olympic team, so I have to think about supporting my growing family. I’ll probably still swim, to be honest, but I’m going to have to start that next step in life — get a real job somehow. And it might be in coaching. It might be as an investor, commercial real estate, I don’t know.”
Swimming is not just a sport, of course, but also a lifestyle and a form of exercise you can do pretty much forever. Like most former competitive swimmers, Grevers figures the next phase of his life, whatever it looks like, will still involve long stretches in the water. He figured he would even be back in the pool within two days of getting home from trials, just to loosen up a little bit.
“I love the water, the weightlessness of it, the quiet,” Grevers said. “It’s a beautiful place to be.”